Is it OK to exploit poor Indians in the name of photojournalism?

Is it OK to exploit poor Indians in the name of photojournalism?
Image: Alessio Mamo
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An Italian photojournalist’s staged images of impoverished Indians posing before fake food has sparked outrage online, with critics calling it exploitative and unethical.

On July 22, Alessio Mamo, a Sicily-based freelance photographer, posted the series, titled ”Dreaming Food,” on the Instagram account of World Press Photo. The Amsterdam-based organisation had tapped Mamo to take over their account and share work from his portfolio after he was awarded the second prize in its 2018 Photo Contest for an image taken in Iraq.

In the series, villagers in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are shown with their hands covering their faces, standing before a table laden with plates of what looks like spaghetti Bolognese, perfect-looking fruit, and even a roasted chicken—all fake, and all dishes they are unlikely to have ever seen before.

“The idea of this project was born after reading the statistics of how much food is thrown away in the West, especially during Christmas time. I brought with me a table and some fake food, and I told people to dream about some food that they would like to find on their table,” Mamo wrote in the accompanying caption, in which he also referenced the “extreme poverty and disease” of rural India and the country’s malnutrition crisis.

The staging of the photos and Mamo’s explanation evoked criticism from commentors.

“This is poor journalism and even poorer humanity,” Hari Adivarekar, an Indian photojournalist, wrote in a comment. “Too many have come and done this kind of shameful work in India and their rewards just open the door for many others to think it’s ok. It isn’t. It’s just inexcusable.”

In response to the criticism, Mamo replied to one commentor with the following:

“My intention was exactly to represent in a stereotyped way these Indian landscape (sic) in order to reinforce the concept. This was the idea behind, maybe I did it wrong, or maybe just you don’t like or you think it’s unethical, but the concept was to problematize food waste in front of the hunger in this area of the world.”

Mamo did not respond to Quartz’s request for comment. But his disturbing use of real people, including children,  like props has raised questions about the ethics of this kind of photojournalism.

“Journalists have obligations to relay information within real contexts. To put fake food—and what appears to be Western food and alcohol at that—in front of these subjects and staging them to cover their faces feels exploitative,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Nina Berman, an American documentary photographer and associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, suggested that the controversy should make World Press Photo reconsider how it organises its Instagram feed so viewers don’t confuse series like this one with the hard work of real photojournalism. “This isn’t photojournalism or any kind of journalism,” she said.

In a statement, World Press Photo described itself as a platform for photographers to share their work, and said it did not limit their choices beyond offering a few general guidelines. Despite the heavy criticism, a spokesperson told Quartz that the pictures will remain on the organisation’s Instagram account, which has over 942,000 followers.

“We believe that controversies are not best handled by deleting images. We think they should be debated in a constructive way. We do not think it serves transparency to remove the photographs and the associated comments,” David Campbell, director of communications at World Press Photo, said in an email.

But many photographers in India and around the world are unconvinced.

“The photographs, in this story, have attempted to draw a comparison between the food waste in the West and the crisis in our country. In doing so, it has translated the statistics into visuals, without any regard for the intrinsic human values of the people photographed. They are stripped off their agency and dignity and reduced to mere props to visualise these stats,” said Sutirtha Chatterjee, an Indian documentary photographer.

Franco Pagetti, a veteran photojournalist based in Milan, said, “The base of photojournalism for me is respect. In this picture, I don’t see respect.”

Update: In a statement posted on Medium, Mamo said:

“The only goal of the concept was to let western people think, in a provocative way, about the waste of food. Maybe it did not work at all, maybe I did it in the wrong way, but I worked honestly and respectfully with all the people involved. I only had the intention to let people think about this issue.

I’m a human being and I can make mistakes. I want to offer my deepest apologies to anyone who felt offended and hurt by this photos, and to the people I photographed.”